Writing Catalog

Zach Schoenbrun

Grade: 10

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

Poor Air and Poor Decisions: The Effects of Redlining on Cleveland's Health

Critical Essay

Poor Air and Poor Decisions: The Effects of Redlining on Cleveland's Health

In February of 2022, 7-year-old Cayden Dillion was playing outside at school. Suddenly, he began to have trouble breathing. His breathing got so bad that his gym teacher had to call 911. Eventually, Dillion was given steroids to open his airways. He was officially diagnosed with asthma. The diagnosis did not come as a shock. All of Dillion's siblings also have asthma. He lives in the Slavic Village of Cleveland which, contrary to its name, is made up of nearly 50% black residents (The Digital Scholarship Lab). Like other neighborhoods of color in the area, the Slavic Village has higher than normal rates of asthma and other health conditions. In fact, the Slavic Village's rate of asthma is 3.5 times higher than the national average ("Redlining Is Affecting"). The health of residents in these neighborhoods is disproportionately worse than those in neighborhoods with better ratings. This disparity results from poor air quality, which continues to pollute Cleveland neighborhoods, and the historical practice of redlining poorer neighborhoods. This problem can be solved by bringing healthcare into redlined neighborhoods and increasing federal funding to help improve air quality nationwide.

It is no coincidence that areas with residents of color all have higher rates of asthma and other health problems. A study done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that health problems such as coronary heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease were far more prevalent in residents of these neighborhoods than those who live in more suburban, whiter neighborhoods. The prevalence of the diseases mentioned above in neighborhoods of color is 65.5%, as opposed to 6.9% in the whiter, more suburban areas (Kroen and Smith). Put simply, the residents in neighborhoods of color live shorter lives than those in white suburbia.

There are many factors that have contributed to the gap in well-being in these neighborhoods. They include higher rates of smoking, less green space, and more polluted air. But they all fit into one category: poor air quality. One of the most common examples of poor air quality is polluted air. In neighborhoods most affected by these health problems, air pollution is 80% higher than it is in white suburbia. This disparity is because major pollutants are placed directly in these neighborhoods. According to Darryl Fears, an environmental reporter for the Washington Post, a new study shows, "Compared with White people, Black and Latino Americans live with more smog and fine particulate matter from cars, trucks, buses, coal plants and other nearby industrial sources in areas... Those pollutants inflame human airways, reduce lung function, trigger asthma attacks and can damage the heart and cause strokes" (Fears). This is evident in Cleveland as well. According to a study done by the University of Richmond, there are major correlations between race and air quality. The study shows that the Kinsman neighborhood, which was referred to as D17, has some of the highest rates of pulmonary disease (14.3%) and asthma (16.4%) in all of Cleveland. 99% of Kinsman's residents are part of a minority. On the other hand, Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood, named D6, has some of the lowest rates of pulmonary disease (3.9%) and asthma (8.7%), and only 18.3% of citizens are part of a minority (The Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition).

All these factors can be traced back to one practice: redlining. Redlining was a government project in the 1930s and 40s done by the newly established Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC). The HOLC graded neighborhoods across the country from A-D based on the risk they posed to banks and other lenders when paying back loans. Neighborhoods that received the grade of D were outlined in red, hence the name "redlining". Many of the areas outlined in red were urban or mostly had residents of color (Kroen and Smith). The effects of this practice can still be felt today. Dr. Al-Kindi is a Cardiologist and researcher at University Hospitals. He and his team investigated the effects of redlining around the United States. He said, "What's surprising to me is that every city that I've looked into, there is significant residential segregation. ... And no matter where you look, the relationship holds between the grading of the neighborhood (loan) risk and cardiometabolic health" (Al-Kindi as quoted in Kroen). The same study from the University of Richmond shows a correlation between living in certain neighborhoods and life expectancy. Kinsman, whose residents are mostly part of minorities, has a life expectancy of 72. On the contrary, the residents of Tremont live much longer than those in Kinsman. There is no denying a strong correlation between Redlining and the health and wellness of certain neighborhoods (The Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition).

Many solutions have been proposed to counter the problem of poor air quality in redlined neighborhoods. One possible solution is to invest in the health of the neighborhoods. A recent initiative by University Hospitals done in collaboration with the NRP Group is a prime example of this. Together, they created a 52-unit affordable-housing unit for those earning 60% or less than the area median income. The housing complex is located only 1 mile away from UH's headquarters, so many health and wellness programs will be available to residents ("University Hospitals and the NRP Group").

One problem with this solution is that investing directly in communities may cause gentrification, or the improvement of areas to the point where newer, wealthier residents push out the old residents (Oxford Dictionary). This problem could be very possible. If funds are allocated to causes such as infrastructure and commerce; the air quality might improve, but the old residents would not be able to see the difference. They would be displaced from their homes and unable to see the benefits.

Investing in communities does not address the underlying issue: poor air quality. Luckily, a piece of legislation exists to tackle this exact issue. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created 42 U.S.C. §7401 et seq., otherwise known as the Clean Air Act in 1970. The goal of the act was to limit the number of air pollutants released into the air. As a result of the Clean Air Act, the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) was established. But it is severely underfunded. According to the US Treasury Department, the EPA, the parent organization of the OAR, received approximately $9.6 Billion for the 2022 Fiscal Year ("EPA's Budget and Spending."). That is less than 1% of the total United States spending budget for 2022. In fact, it is $33.4 billion less than what the US Government spent alone in October of 2022 ("Federal Spending."). This lack of funding is a major problem. From 1970-1990, the Clean Air Act cost $532 billion to operate. Adjusting for inflation, that is about $1.2 trillion in 2022. At the current rate of funding, the EPA will not be able to advance the mitigation programs at the same rate. But the lack of funding can be easily changed. The EPA currently receives approximately 0.2% of the $4.9 trillion collected in taxes in 2022 ("How Much Money Has the Federal Government"). Using the average number of taxes paid, $20,663, it can be calculated that the EPA receives about $43 of that money (Bird). The EPA's funding could be doubled if the average American paid $43 more in taxes per year.

Some would say that it would not make sense for the poorer people being affected by poor air quality to pay as much as those who are more affluent and able to pay more. That is why this tax addition would be part of a progressive taxation system. A progressive taxation system means that the government takes a larger percentage of taxes from higher-income groups than from lower-income groups and is based on the group's ability to pay ("Progressive Taxes"). This minor tax increase would be able to fund the EPA, OAR, and Clean Air Act for years to come. Not only will the EPA benefit, but Cleveland's neighborhoods will too. The standard for maintenance and mitigation of poor air quality in Cleveland are set by the EPA and Clean Air Act. Air monitoring, enforcement, and outreach programs in Cleveland are all based on the guidance of the EPA. In turn, the EPA could create new programs to help reverse the changes of redlining with the funding they receive. By doing so, the health of Cleveland residents will improve. The increase in air quality would make the rate of diseases go down and the life expectancy in neighborhoods go up. A 0.2% increase in taxes could save thousands, if not millions of lives.

In conclusion, the disparity in air quality caused by redlining can be solved by bringing healthcare into neighborhoods and, more importantly, increased federal funding. If the 0.2% tax increase was implemented, it is very possible that Cayden Dillion would have never gone to the hospital. It is possible that residents of Kinsman will one day be able to breathe as easily as those in Tremont. What is certain is that poor air quality is a national crisis. It is a plague that affects millions of Americans every year. Luckily, the problem is fixable.